The Avengers

The standard NFB warning for spoilers apply.

I had low expectations coming into this movie. I love Joss Whedon and most of his work, but I felt something like The Avengers (Avengers Assemble is a dumb title) was simply not his thing. Whedon is a dialogue man, and this was plainly going to be some sort of action-heavy movie. Whedon focuses primarily on female characters, Avengers basically has one of any real note. Whedon stuff is primarily based on making excellent, well developed characters, while Avengers was a star studded affair where there simply wouldn’t be time to do the kind of work that Whedon pulled off in Serenity.

Well, I was wrong. There is so much good in this movie, much of this review will seem to be gushing with praise, while any complaints that I bring up are bound to seem somewhat nitpicky.

The plot is good. Nothing too complicated, nothing too shallow either. We have our bad guy, our threat, believable and effective. The Avengers have a credible reason for being thrown together from such strange backgrounds. Everyone has a purpose, a role to play. It’s all based around a well-established* MacGuffin device. It all just works so very well, the threat of the crazed, wronged son from another world bringing destruction to ours out of insane spite.

Every Avenger gets to tell his own story, and tell it well. Tony Stark has to learn to “play well” with others, through the medium of clashes with Steve Rodgers and encouragement of Bruce Banner. Rodgers is a man out of his time, struggling to adapt to a world far different than the one he left. Banner is the fugitive trying to balance an unexpected call up from those he’s running from with the dark nature of his inner beast. Thor is King Lear’s Edgar, trying to save the planet he’s fallen in love with from the brother he’s also hoping to reach a hand out to, with Loki as Edmund, the bastard son out for his own reward. Black Widow has her dark past to try and make up for, given human focus through her relationship with Hawkeye. And him, well, he’s a patsy for most of the running time, motivated by sheer revenge by the end.

And it all just somehow works. Through the main story, Whedon weaves this complex thread of sub-plots (not forgetting all the other characters, Fury, Coulson etc), manages to give them all focus, time, dialogue and conclusions that actually make sense and are effective for the story he wants to tell. Iron Man learns to be a team player. Cap learns to lead in a new future. Hulk takes control of his problem. Thor finds his brother and brings him home. Hawkeye gets his revenge. Black Widow saves a life. Loki loses all (or does he?). And none of it is stretched, done too quickly, forces the audience to suspect disbelief too much.

The pacing is just so good in this, not just in the way Whedon skilfully selects the right places for action beats, but in the way he picks the write kind of scene for the right purpose, the right characters to interact at the right moment. Of course Captain American should be the peacemaker between Thor and Iron Man. Of course Black Widow should be the one to bring Banner in. Of course Coulson should be the one to die (more in a sec). The general course of a movie like this is predictable enough – threat emerges, team brought together, individuals clash, come to their senses, unite to win.

But this film just never gets boring, never lags, it’s just a near perfect mixture of exposition, action, development, all at the right moments, leaving the spectacular finale for the big explosions, but not so much that it becomes Dark of the Moon. Whedon dives into it from the off, leaving just enough time for backstory that things can be driven forward, but not so much that anyone is missed by the spotlight. This might be the most balanced film, character wise, that I have ever seen, at least from the action/sci-fi genre, even better then the Herculean effort Whedon made with the nine characters (and villain) in Serenity.

Poor Agent Coulson, who gets a first name, a mention of a girlfriend, and gets to meet his childhood hero. “Jossing” in progress. Coulson is one of those audience favourite characters, comparable to Boba Fett, who captures the imagination despite a lack of stuff to actually do. He gets more screentime here then he does in any move save Thor, I think. That’s important, because he’s the sacrificial lamb.

I said “Jossing” which is a term invented by some people to describe the Joss Whedon approach to character death. Whedon is almost as (in)famous for killing off characters unexpectedly as George R.R. Martin, but he has a pattern. “Jossing” is giving a character something that he/she truly desires, or a big moment to prove themselves (in this case, having Coulson meet and fawn over Captain America). “Jossing” is always followed soon after by “Whedoning”, the horrible and sudden death of that character or some character closely tied to him/her (look back over Whedon’s work and you find the process everywhere). Coulson’s death is not so much of a surprise if viewed in conjunction with Whedon’s record or simply with what is required in the film: you need something to motivate the heroes without getting rid of someone who is critical to the plots continuation. Coulson fills both counts. His death is, in typical Whedon style, a gut wrenching mixture of tragedy and bittersweet comedy, as the g-man gets to blast Loki (“That’s what it does”) before whispering to Fury that the titular team is missing something with his last breath. Stark’s indignity at his death might be a little much (he never seemed to actually like him at all in previous movies), but it’s the right choice to make in order to get the Avengers moving forward.

Oh, and the dialogue. It leaps off the screen. It’s moving when it needs to be, serious when it needs to be, tragic, funny, sarcastic, bitter, clichéd when it needs to be. There are so many memorable lines and conversations that I am at a loss to remember them all. I may have a soft spot for Banner’s “revelation” towards the end, a twist that is both effective but also ingenious in its warping of the traditional Hulk line “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” when it becomes the much more serious (and amazing) “That’s the secret. I’m always angry” as he unleashes the controlled “other guy”. Such simple wordsmithing is a joy to behold in a genre that has been so often lacking in that department.

It’s typical Whedon, that sort of slightly snarky, modern tone, where characters can discuss the destruction of the world one moment and throw out a seemingly out-of-place joke the next and it all just fits and flows wonderfully. Whedon is the king of the one-liner in tv/movie dialogue, of the well placed sarcastic response. All the characters just seem so real, the way they bounce of each other. That’s utterly crucial for the superhero film. When you watch Avengers, you think “Yes, this is how these people should talk”.  The film is largely based around set interactions between duo and trios in individual scenes, culminating in all six of them together at the end.

What else can I pick out? Banner and Black Widow in India, the fugitive testing the bonds of her calm demeanour and finding the truth – Widow’s utterly terrified reaction to his fake rage is absolutely perfect in instilling the sense of fear in the audience for what Banner has within him, far more than having him ”hulk out” would have been.

Stark and Rodgers, the enmity that Marvel so ballsed up in Civil War, on display as it should be – the lackadaisical playboy with his expensive toys, clashing off the soldier who had to fight for everything he has. They’re the core of the Avengers team itself, and the resolution of their conflict is crucial to the team coming together.

Black Widow and Loki, the Asgardian taunting her mercilessly from his cell. What a scene for showing off the Trickster’s repertoire of insidious ploys. Coulson nervously talking about his admiration for Rodgers. How easy does Whedon make it look to add a human element to a previously bland character? Thor, heartbreakingly asking his brother to stand down. That naivety, that only a demigod like Thor could have, comes off brilliantly as he continues to fall for Loki’s tricks. Or Loki, putting on the megalomaniac show for a German crowd, ordering them to their knees, with only a holocaust survivor facing him down. How an awe-inspiring a moment is that, before Captain America rolls in, almost a continuation of the battle he previously fought.

I suppose there are some brief moments when the dialogue doesn’t quite fit – when Rodgers admonishes Stark for his joking attitude in the face of global disaster, it was just I had been thinking. On occasion, Whedon plumps for some laughs in otherwise serious surrounds, which detracts from the drama slightly. It is never too jarring though, and falls well short of the disastrous effect the “comedic” dialogue had in films like Revenge of the Fallen and Joel Schumacher’s Batman films. The humorous element works on occasions when you would half-expect it wouldn’t. The Hulk interrupting Loki’s near end speech to pound him into the ground is an example, where the comedy factor actually just makes it better, as the smirking villain gets shown what real power is.

Dialogue is one thing, acting is another. Again, I have no serious complaints. Everyone does their job well, to the standard that has been set by the preceding films in the Marvel universe. That is not to lessen the achievement that Whedon has pulled off for this film, on its own merits: he has taken a very large and well-known cast, and gotten some uniformly great performances. Robert Downey Jnr, as ever, is clearly having an absolute ball as Tony Stark, Mark Ruffalo is simply fantastic as Banner, Johansson has always been great, and Samuel L. Jackson simply is Nick Fury. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans don’t have as much to do, emotional range wise, but that fits their characters.

Let’s not forget Tom Hiddleston, who brings such wonderful spitefulness and smirk to the villain Loki. Since he’s the one man facing a multitude of superheroes, he has to be up to the task of making the audience buy him as a viable threat, and he does so brilliantly, from his opening demolition of Fury’s secret base all the way to his final fakeout with Thor, tearfully expressing regret for the way things have gone only to pull a knife and stab him in the gut.

The action is good. Of course some of the Avengers will have to fight each other (there is only one bad guy after all) and they actually make up the bulk of the action sequences, as Iron Man has it out with Thor before the God of Thunder squares off with the Hulk. The New York wide superbattle with the Skrulls (or whatever the hell Whedon was calling them) is a classic superhero throwdown moment. The fight choreography is good, the CGI is seamless, from the invading Skrull army to Hulk’s gravity defying jumps.

I suppose, in that sense more than anything else, Black Widow and Hawkeye are out of place here, the “normal” humans surrounded by the billionaire tin man, the super-soldier, the Norse God, the nuclear giant. Hawkeye’s archery antics seem even more farfetched then Thor’s hammer since its so “out there” for a supposedly “non-super” character (shooting off arrows at a distance without even looking at the target) and Black Widow with her tiny pistol just seems out of her depth at times. It should come as no surprise that they end up fighting each other hand to hand, as they are the only characters capable of doing so without it become something else entirely (like the Thor/Hulk fight)

Whedon wisely steers clear of a romance plot, save for a brief scene between Stark and Pepper Potts (some great inter-play between those two). I suppose there are hints between Black Widow and Hawkeye but that’s all there is. Romance is almost expected for these kind of flicks, but Whedon has the confidence to just cut it out entirely. Avengers isn’t the movie for that, the other Marvel Studio’s ones are. There simply isn’t time for it here. “Love is for children”, as Black Widow points out.

In terms of other criticisms, I have little to add beyond one major point. In order to fully appreciate Avengers, you will have had to have seen a number of other movies, up to 10 hours worth of film really, most especially Thor and Captain America. As I have stated previously when reviewing The Hunger Games, a major thing with me is a film standing on its own merit without requiring a viewing/reading list in order to get maximum enjoyment out of it. You could watch the Avengers on its own and not become too lost, but you would be coming in cold on a wealth of backstory that is summated in single sentences or just leave to your imagination. I’ve seen (and enjoyed) all of the other films coming out of Marvel Studios but something I hate saying in any movie discussion is “Well, you really have to have seen XXX to get that” or “They explain that in the other movie”. The * next to the MacGuffin further up is an example of that. If you want to know what the Cosmic Cube (Tesseract?) is, you gotta watch other movies.

That’s a minor gripe. It isn’t too bad. Other than that, Avengers, like all the other films in its continuity, sticks in a post-credits scene, a habit that I truly despise from filmmakers. If you wrote the scene, hired actors for it, made CGI, filmed it, edited it, just put it in the god-damn movie. Do not expect me to sit in the movie theatre listening to a soundtrack (that was a tad underwhelming it has to be said) for ten minutes just to get the “heads-up” for the next movie. I really, really hate it when people do that.

The Avengers is not the best comic book film I’ve ever seen – that honour remains with The Dark Knight. But it is stupid to compare those two films directly just because they are lumped in together due to their inspiration medium. They are very different films. The Avengers is one of the best films I’ve seen for its kind of superhero, rather than the more realistic take that Nolan goes for. I might still rank the first Iron Man ahead of it, because I would have the first Iron Man’s babies if it let me, but the Avengers is still a very close second. It is a very, very, very, very good film.

It is not flawless. The negative backlash that some have gotten for daring to besmirch Avengers is somewhat startling to see, but I suppose typical for the kind of online fanbase these movies tend to attract, especially in the early days of release.

You should go and see The Avengers because you will enjoy it if you enjoy the genre at all, because it is good in just about every department, because it is a masterpiece of superhero cinema. Marvel have pulled off something extraordinary in getting to this point, and the wait and effort has been well worth it.

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